A recent article in the Australian talked about how even very young children can absorb others’ emotions.
The researchers from Concordia University in Canada found that ‘from eighteen months, children can tell when we are faking our emotions.’ In other words, even if parents try to shield their children when the parents themselves are in pain, it seems that it may not work.
Certainly in families which include a child with a disability, there can be very intense emotions for all members of the family. But it can be very difficult to talk about the feelings and often parents will try to hide their feelings of grief, anger and guilt to protect their children – both the ones with a disability and those without.
This rang true to me, both as a sibling of a person with a disability and as someone who has worked with families for many years.
Many adult siblings talk about the fact that there was little discussion in their families about feelings and reactions to the family’s experiences. They often felt very alone. As one sibling said, I had learnt from a young age not to react, and not show emotion on my face. It taught me a lot of control. I could mask everything if I wanted to. You should be able to acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling, verbalise and deal with it. But I couldn’t do that.
Other siblings talk of feeling their parents’ pain and trying desperately to fix things, to be the ‘good child’ and not add to the pain. One described how she and her parents did not know how to deal with the feelings and that all that ‘emotion stuffing has taken a big toll, and I have been on anti-depressants, in counselling and in group therapy for several years.
One of the best things we can give young children is the ability to ‘be with their feelings, whether it is grief or guilt or anger, and to understand what the feeling is and how to manage it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children could recognise the guilt or grief and not make up other ideas of what the feeling means eg ‘I’m a bad kid’, or ‘I don’t deserve etc, and just be able to understand the feeling, and accept it and themselves? Of course, children need to also know that certain behaviours in response to the feelings are not OK, eg it is not ok to hit their brother or sister over the head, but it is ok to feel annoyed or angry.
The role of adults is to give children the coping tools to manage their feelings. It helps if parents or professionals from mental health services can acknowledge the difficulties for siblings; let them know you understand it can be difficult for them too and it is ok to feel angry or sad etc
It can help to share some of your own feelings with children eg ‘I feel sad today because Jonny can’t go to the same school as you or ‘I am so upset that we had to cancel the picnic and you missed seeing your friends. It is an opportunity to give children a language for their feelings and to let them know that feelings are not scary things to be avoided. One sibling talked about how it helped her when she saw her mother cry sometimes – it showed her that her mother was not made of steel and they could support each other. It also could show positive ways of managing feelings and looking for things to help them feel better.
You can follow up with a good set of coping skills. For example, if angry, a child might be helped by doing something active like shooting hoops, or punching a pillow; for others quiet music, drawing or journaling might help.
Or you might offer some constructive pathways. For example, ‘I understand you are angry that your sister spoilt your homework. Would you like me to talk to the teacher in the morning or would you like me to help you do it again?’
Again, we can’t protect children from their feelings or our own. However, we can help them develop the tools to express and manage them. If a family shares their feelings and supports each other, each member of the family will be stronger and happier.